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Chicago Thu Dec 03 2015
In the aftermath of the release of the video of the killing of Laquan McDonald, the calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's resignation keep coming in. Well, go ahead and add my name to the list. And you all can say it along with me:
Mr. Mayor, the public can have no faith in you at this point, and you need to resign.
That felt great, didn't it?
Now, back to reality.
First, Rahm is going to do everything he can to weather this storm. I'd be thrilled to see him go, but we can't expect that to happen. He's less than a year into a four-year term. He's going to try to rebuild his reputation somehow.
Second, much in the same way that the firing of Superintendent Garry McCarthy does not magically solve the systemic problems within the Chicago Police Department, the mayor's departure would not be some kind of magic cure-all. We all know better than that.
The public is angry, though, and there is a possibility here to get focused on systemic change in a way that the city has perhaps never seen. To borrow from the mayor himself, Rahm is in serious crisis, and the public shouldn't let this serious crisis go to waste.
There are multiple pressure points available that, for many reasons, are not traditionally available. The Machine in Chicago and across Illinois generally does a thorough job of locking the public out. The systemic problems which Laquan McDonald's death are shining a light on go beyond the police department and the fifth floor of City Hall. All of these governmental institutions are interlocking, and bringing thorough change means focusing on more than just the figureheads at the top of the most visible hierarchies.
Chicago City Council
Conceptually, Chicago has a "weak mayor, strong council" system. I'll pause now so you can stop laughing.
From time to time people will talk about how the City Council should be more than just a rubber stamp. Chicago magazine weighed in a couple of years ago. NBC5's Ward Room threw a bit in at the beginning of Rahm's first term, referencing a Tribune article which on the one hand seems like a perverse joke, but which may actually portend the potential for changes to come. There's a wonderful quote from a Chicago alderman in the Tribune article which gets to the heart of the matter:
"The City Council is the only legislative body in the Western world that acts like the Soviet Politburo... He [Emanuel] doesn't have inherent power. We surrender it."
Now, that quote is from 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, who has honed the fine art of surrender over the last four-plus years. But let's simply regard what Moore said then as an acknowledgment that the City Council is well aware that they have latent power which could be brought to bear. And now, they have an opportunity to flex that power, with Rahm being very politically weak.
Committee Chairs. You might be forgiven for thinking that the mayor appoints the chairs of the various City Council committees, because that's how the story always tends to get reported. The reality is a little different. Look at the Council Rules yourself. [PDF] On page 10 you'll find that the Council itself, by resolution, appoints the officers and the members of the various committees. These assignments are often adopted en masse, having been worked out behind the scenes under the leadership of the mayor, but there's absolutely nothing stopping the Council from adopting a new resolution which would change out a given committee chair.
If you think this doesn't matter, you're wrong. Mayoral allies typically chair committees, and they're in place to ensure that legislation the mayor does not like will not even progress to a vote.
Here's a nice tidy list of chairs who should be sacked immediately:
Committee on Education and Child Development: Will Burns is an ardent charter proponent who has personally blocked a Council resolution in favor of a charter moratorium. That resolution has over 40 aldermen signing on. There's no excuse to allow Burns to continue in this role.
Committee on Finance: Ed Burke was one of the actual antagonists in the Council Wars during Harold Washington's years. He's an absolute system man and it would send a particularly strong message that times have changed to finally replace him with someone who actually cares what average Chicagoans think.
Committee on Health and Environmental Protection: George Cardenas is a quintessential yes man who long stood on the sidelines on the question of closing the Fisk and Crawford coal plants which were spewing largely into his ward. Almost anybody would be a better choice for this seat.
Committee on Public Safety: Gee, maybe Chicago has a problem with public safety these days. Ariel Reboyras has clearly done nothing with his chairmanship to provide any kind of oversight or investigation. This one should be a slam dunk replacement.
Beyond the committees, there are some obvious additional places for the City Council to get some work done.
The existing Independent Police Review Authority, which is widely understood to be an unmitigated disaster, has its composition and functions defined in city ordinance. That means it's on the City Council -- not the mayor -- to give it actual independent authority, and to give it some actual teeth. Dumping Reboyras as committee chair is probably a prerequisite to getting this to happen.
The City Council can also strengthen the Office of Inspector General. It might not bother with such things, given how it completely handcuffed the Legislative Inspector General (who serves as the watchdog over the Council itself), but if ever there was a time to give transparency a boost, this is it.
And that is of course but a short list of things the City Council could be formally doing. The key element here is for people to understand that this is the time for the Council to demonstrate whether, on the whole, it's actually on the mayor's side or not. There should be enough potential now for more votes to be brought to the floor, and for more aldermen to be forced to be accountable to their constituents.
First, let's be clear that no help is going to come from Governor Bruce Rauner. Everything here is suggested on the basis that not only do the Democrats have what is supposed to be a veto-proof majority, but also that more reasonable Republicans should be willing to cross over and defy Rauner on several of these points.
The main reason why it's such a joke to think of Chicago as having a "weak mayor" system is because the mayor's authority also extends beyond traditional mayoral roles into realms like education, parks and libraries.
It is high time that Chicago had an elected school board. Every other district in the state directly elects its school board. This is not just a matter of democracy, but also a matter of practicality. At a time like this, it should be abundantly obvious that the same person shouldn't be trying to manage both police policy and also school policy. Both of those things demand too much attention. State Representative Robert Martwick (D-19) is confident that his elected school board bill (HB4268) will be passed in 2016, and every single Democratic legislator who hasn't signed on yet should now be feeling pressure from their constituents to do so.
And let's not stop there. The mayor shouldn't be in charge of the Chicago City Colleges either. Much like school boards, community college boards are elected everywhere else in Illinois. A parallel bill for an elected City Colleges board should be rolled out and passed in 2016. The structure could be so similar that once Martwick's bill goes through its final amendments, someone should be able to mostly copy and paste over into a second bill.
The park board and library board should be elected as well. In most parts of the state, these are also elected offices. Again, any mayor would have his or her hands full with public safety, transportation, streets and sanitation, zoning and all of the other responsibilities which would remain untouched. The parks and libraries are already separate taxing entities, and they should no longer be controlled by the mayor's office.
The General Assembly can also address some of the more problematic aspects of Chicago elections. One problem -- actually caused by the General Assembly itself in recent years -- was the doubling of signature requirements for aldermanic races. As I've written about in the past, higher requirements have disproportionately difficult impacts on minority wards. That change should be rolled back.
Currently, if an alderman resigns or dies in office, the mayor is allowed to appoint a replacement, who can serve until the next Chicago municipal elections. This approach has allowed for such things as Dick Mell resigning as 33rd Ward Alderman and the appointment of his daughter Deb to replace him. Once aldermen become incumbents, even for short periods of time, it becomes much easier for them to win subsequent elections. The General Assembly can modify this, though, and make it so that in the event of an aldermanic vacancy, the office will be up at the next regular election, whatever that might be. The mayor could possibly still appoint an interim, but this way, if someone leaves office in April 2016, a permanent alderman could be elected in November 2016, instead of a mayoral appointee being allowed to serve for three full years. This would be a critical change in breaking down mayoral power and enhancing democracy.
The General Assembly can also legalize marijuana throughout Illinois, or at the very least, fully decriminalize it so that it is no more than a ticketable offense. Much research has gone into how the Chicago Police Department has approached marijuana and how an extremely disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos have been arrested -- perhaps most notably by former Reader and current Sun-Times writer Mick Dumke. It is not an effective policing strategy, it has bogged down the Cook County courts system, and it contributes greatly to the distrust minority communities feel toward the police. Here is an opportunity for the General Assembly to take a strong, common sense step in addressing policing culture -- and let's not pretend the problem is limited only to Chicago -- and to do so in a way that will save money and help free up currently misapplied police resources.
One reason why the General Assembly is a particularly important pressure point right now is because those primaries are a little over three months away, and in particular numerous House members look to be facing strong challengers. In a district like the 15th, where a Machine Democrat in John D'Amico is facing a progressive in Jac Charlier, the general public connecting the systemic problems in Chicago with the systemic problems in Springfield can be essential in sending new blood to the capital -- new blood that can in turn help enact some of the aforementioned needed legislation.
Assuming that the State's Attorney's race plays out as it currently looks, Kim Foxx will likely trounce Anita Alvarez. But Emanuel and Alvarez have never really been associated with one another politically. Alvarez is not really a proxy for the Mayor. The US Senate race won't work as a proxy race either, because even though Tammy Duckworth owes her career to Rahm, Andrea Zopp is best known for being one of Rahm's appointed school board members.
At the very top of the ticket, though, there is a very real proxy available: Hillary Clinton.
Rahm Emanuel first came to prominence as a staffer in Bill Clinton's White House. Hillary remains a strong ally of the mayor. They're too politically connected as is for them to be able to create any real separation. What activists need to do now is hammer home those connections, and turn them into political issues for Hillary.
The reality is that Rahm is not just under fire at home. The Washington Post and New York Times among others have gone after him. Laquan McDonald, like Mike Brown and Eric Garner, is not local. He is, in death, a national figure, and potentially the most powerful of all because of the video footage. So long as McDonald's death remains a major national story, Emanuel will be the center of that firestorm. And it is eminently appropriate to hammer home the Emanuel-Clinton connection, because it's not simply a personal or strictly political connection. Rahm, Bill and Hillary all represent the neo-liberal bloc of the Democratic Party that has been systematically burying progressive movements for years. This can be seen even now with Hillary's attempted attacks against Bernie Sanders' call for single-payer universal health care.
He would of course need to be tactful and cautious, but if I were advising Sanders today, I'd tell him to do everything he can to keep Laquan McDonald and Rahm Emanuel in the national consciousness. This is not simply a matter of playing politics. McDonald's death reflects an out-of-control police culture, the worst excesses of which might be associated with Chicago, but which is clearly national in scope. In fact, Hillary herself has now called for a federal probe of the CPD. Her camp has already been thinking about precisely what I'm writing here, and they're clearly trying to establish distance from the mayor.
Any further pressure that can be brought to bear nationally will only help with applying pressure locally. Particularly in Chicago, if Sanders and his allies can effectively turn Clinton into an Emanuel proxy, then it will also help boost the chances of non-Machine Democrats downticket. It's important to emphasize here that with an extremely confusing and hotly contested Republican primary underway, no Republicans are likely to cross over. A strong showing of progressives can produce much more prominent results than usual this year.
Is it cynical to suggest that the brutal, horrific killing of a young black man on the streets of Chicago should be regarded as a means of advancing a progressive political agenda? It would be understandable for people to regard it as such.
I would argue that for the most part, it should not be regarded in such cynical terms. When you step back and realize that the political agenda advocated here involves attacking the deep systemic problems which helped cause Laquan McDonald's death, this makes it quite a bit different from what Rahm meant when he made the original "wasted crisis" comment.
But we must also not be so naive as to believe that the cynicism argument doesn't at all apply here. We must be realistic that when we are confronted with horror, while we may be moved to combat it, we are also, in the process, tacitly acknowledging the presence of that horror. We can, and we must, do better as a society. But to do so sometimes frankly requires political opportunism, as much as we wish it weren't the case. It's simply not good enough to hope for change. We have a very complicated political system, and tackling the deep flaws within that system necessitates utilizing systematic approaches which will at times feel similar to approaches used by nominal political rivals.
If Laquan McDonald's death is ultimately going to mean something, and can ultimately be a catalyst for great change in our city and nation and beyond, it will not be because we all joined in a chorus calling for one man to resign his office, or because we felt good in doing so. It will take immense effort on the part of innumerable people, but not just effort. We must not just work harder; we must also work smarter. As much as we might dislike thinking about it in such terms, we must see the current political climate for the opportunity it is.
We can't afford to waste this crisis.